Friday, February 25, 2011

shark, jumped: more thoughts on old tv

Oh, Big Love, where did our love go? In seasons one through three you were so poignant—a perfect family drama times three families. But now (meaning about a year ago, since AK and I just finished watching season four on DVD) it’s like you’re running downhill and your body is moving faster than your legs. A similar thing happened in the final throes of The L Word, except whereas The L Word at best was a bad show with some good moments, you were once an amazing show (with a little more Juniper Creek than was sometimes necessary).

On Facebook someone referred to season four jumping the shark, and at first I thought she must have meant the scene where Bill’s mom chops off Hollis Greene’s arm in B-movie glory down at the Mexican bird-smuggling compound. But after watching the season finale last night, I’m pretty sure she meant the plotline where JJ Walker, Nicki’s ex-husband/stepfather (‘cause that’s how Juniper Creek rolls), runs a secret eugenics program that involves impregnating women with foreign embryos while under the guise of treating them for infertility. His Kansas compound is raided on suspicion of incest and inbreeding, which we’re led to believe his infertility-clinic-in-a-trailer is evidence of.

My newly acquired familiarity with the science of baby-making (and, I’d like to think, basic logic) made my little antennae vibrate with rage.

“Wait, how is impregnating a woman using someone else’s eggs or embryos inbreeding?” I asked AK. “That’s, like, the opposite of inbreeding. That baby will be less related to her than if she got knocked up naturally. Not to mention, why would Nicki ever visit a doctor whose office is in a trailer?”

“See, you’re asking too many questions,” AK said. “The problem is, we actually know a tiny bit about this stuff. If we knew about law enforcement or politics or casinos or smuggling, we’d see all the holes in those plotlines too.”

I sighed. “I could have spent a whole season just watching the sister-wives bicker over grocery shopping. What happened to those days?”

But the finale, to its credit, at least burned down the clinic (with JJ in it, which, as AK pointed out, would have been sad and disturbing back in the days when the show still had human characters), and Bill more or less made a pledge to start his life over. I think the writers were trying to send us a message: Look, we made a mistake. At least 72, actually. There’s nothing to do but throw these pages into the fire and start over with season five.

Here’s hoping. When season five comes out on DVD a year and a half from now, I’ll let you know.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

reviews of some stuff that everyone else saw at least a year ago

I’m taking some sick time right now, but it’s the kind of sick where I can’t really get away with not checking my work email, and, clearly, I’m well enough to blog. There’s a big stack of books next to my bed, but mostly I’ve watched a lot of DVDs.

Cyrus is a fascinating study of nice people with no boundaries. “They’re way too enmeshed” is how AK described the characters. Now that she’s a grad student in psychology, she has all sorts of diagnoses for our pop culture friends (and a few for our real ones…but not you, of course. You are 100 percent well adjusted).

Easy A has an endearing cast and some funny moments, but Emma Stone is just too charming and confident to be believable as a victim of any high school rumor mill. The whole thing has that scrubbed, over-saturated quality of sitcoms; if it were just a little more absurd, it would be like an episode of Glee or Popular, and I’d be down with it, but the movie has just enough nods to realism to draw attention to its overall lack thereof. Also, at what contemporary high school are girls labeled sluts just for losing their virginity? If my casual study of the media is correct, we live in the age of hook-ups, first-date BJs, amateur porn and pregnancy pacts.

As part of my casual study, I’ve been watching Gossip Girl, which would not normally be my cup of tea, but Nicole had the first season on DVD. Usually if I’m going low-brow, I go straight-up Real Housewives. I want to be stunned by the trashiest our culture has to offer, not the second trashiest.

So is the mere existence of a script and actors the reason I’m finding Gossip Girl kind of good? Or is it because it’s at least partially about female friendships, which I always find addictive and underexplored? And even though revealing a villain’s secret hardships is hardly an unused plot device, Gossip Girl does a pretty good job of it. Plus let’s not forget the obvious: Blake Lively is gorgeous (I so appreciated the episode where Blair grows tired of Serena’s constant if well meaning thefts of the spotlight—who hasn’t had that friend?) and the clothes are fabulous.

I’ve been wearing the same Pennekamp School I Heart You T-shirt and gray sweats for two days now (and these are my good sweats, the kind you can go to the doctor in), so maybe it’s no surprise that putting on a drapey mini dress and a headband seems like an absolute dream come true right now.

Friday, February 18, 2011

how dare you not be hot

Reading this post by Sizzle, which was a response to this post on The Stranger’s SLOG, got me thinking about the male gaze. It’s nothing new. It’s so not new that some feminists have refuted Laura Mulvey’s original theory, or so the hippest feminist in my queer books class told me in grad school, when I thought I was pretty hip for bringing up Laura Mulvey in the first place.

But damn, it’s still powerful.

The other day Jamie and I were talking, as we do, about getting older, and how the world looks at you differently, especially if you happen to be a woman. Since giving birth, she’s been conscious of the ramifications of losing one’s looks (although she hasn’t lost her looks at all. She’s a textbook MILF, although not a mom I’d like to eff because, among other reasons, I’m her boss). But why should I have to add that she hasn’t lost her looks? Why does not being youthfully hot have to equal cultural damnation?

I told her I’ve been noticing how women lose currency when they’re not perceived as fertile—whether because they’re old, butch, fat, etc.—even in contexts that have nothing to do with actual baby-making. Society is like, What you’re saying would be so much more interesting to me if you were 27 with a waist-hip ratio that implied you could squeeze out a couple of kids, but of course hadn’t yet.

Almost every day on Kevin & Bean (the KROQ morning show that’s been making me feel bad about myself since 1990; but hey, I like Ralph’s showbiz report), steam practically comes out of the ears of the doofy hosts when a woman who’s not hot dares to find her way onto their radar. A lot of times this woman is Tilda Swinton—whom plenty of people find hot, but what if they didn’t? What if there was some way to prove that not one person on the face of the earth wanted to have sex with Tilda Swinton?

In Kevin and Bean’s economy, she should just die. Because clearly she was put on this earth to make penises happy, and if she’s failed at this mission, what’s the point of living?

There’s a funny part in Reno 911!: Miami when one of the inept, self-centered cops finds herself at a 911 dispatch desk. She asks the caller for her address, pauses, then says, “No, where are you in relation to where I am?” Which is how so many people—not just men, and not excluding myself—go through the world. How does it relate to me? What can it do for me? How does your marriage threaten me? White people sometimes look at affirmative action and say, “It’s great because I learn so much from going to a diverse school/working in a diverse environment!” True, but what if you didn’t? What if it had nothing to do with you? Would it have no value?

I would like to close this post with a photo that I unfortunately didn’t take, of a billboard I saw while driving on the 10 freeway this morning. But I think the text makes my point better than this whole post: “Celebrate Black History Month. Let your new life begin! Call 1-800-GET-THIN.”

‘Cause I’m pretty MLK was hoping that one day his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the size of their gastric bypass surgery-sculpted waistlines.

Friday, February 11, 2011

more sesame street, less burning man

I think Robbie Q. Telfer has a kindred spirit in Reggie Watts, whom AK and I and our sisters saw open for Garfunkel & Oates at Largo last night. I mean, they’re totally different—Robbie Q. is a spoken word guy and Reggie Watts is an all-kinds-of-sounds guy, but they both defy categorization (though I realize I just categorized them) and get me thinking about what performance can be.

Watts is a beat-boxer, looping machine guru, singer, piano player and comedian. I can’t begin to describe how he blends all of those talents, but he does, seamlessly yet schizophrenically. One minute he sounds like an old soul musician, the next he’s giving a nonsensical report on “tech futures” in a nerdy executive voice. He uses every part of his body, from his voice box to his doughy hips to his massive Afro and, well, is there such thing as a beard-fro? His hair shakes goofily, and at one point he seemed to be able to move it in slow motion.

My sister leaned over and said, “I keep thinking of Sesame Street. He looks and moves like a Muppet, of course, but he also reminds me of the seventies.”

He was wearing sweater with a golf tableau on it.

Part of the goal of my circus-novel-in-progress is to capture the alchemical magic that performance works on both audience and performer. I’m trying to capture it in words, the opposite of performance, so maybe it’s a doomed mission. My characters are dancers and acrobats and politically oriented thespians—no beat-boxers among them—but some of them went to art school, and I do want them to have a taste for the experimental. Seeing people like Robbie Q. Telfer and Reggie Watts—not to mention the less out-there but incredibly funny and talented Garfunkel & Oates—makes me think I’m not being imaginative enough.

In my novel, an L.A. Weekly reviewer describes my circus’ aesthetic as “Burning Man burlesque,” which they’re a little insulted by. Writing about artists always runs the risk of being an exercise in navel-gazery, so I don’t want them to be total geniuses who get angsty blocks only to hit it out of the park later, but I do want them to be genuinely creative. I want them to find the sweet spot. So how can they, and I, get beyond Burning Man burlesque?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

faith without innocence

I’ve been reading More Than It Hurts You by Darin Strauss, which I’m not quite done with, and thinking about innocence. One of the main characters, Josh, is this charming thirty-something ad salesman who tries to see the good in every person he meets. He’s not one of those smarmy used-car-type salesmen: Like all really good salespeople, he believes what he’s saying. He prides himself on noticing little details about people, a quality Strauss must share because he’s so good at documenting the minutia of human interactions that, in the time I’ve been reading the book, I feel like I’ve become a way better writer. It’s like Strauss’ prose is this electric current I can tap into.

But whereas Strauss is interested in swinging his flashlight beam into the dark corners of our souls, Josh is not. Despite his keen observances, he also prides himself on knowing just enough to get by when it comes to many subjects and situations. The wrong kind of details muck up the smooth clockwork of life. This philosophy serves him well in sales but proves disastrous when it comes to his wife, whose dissatisfaction with their marriage plays out in very disturbing but covert ways.

Josh’s story is one of belated loss of innocence, which is, I think, the story of being in one’s thirties (this post being yet another chapter in my ongoing and surprising discovery that adulthood is not a big party at the finish line of youth). There are the universal losses of innocence that are well documented in fiction: loss of virginity, first broken heart, etc. But fiction would have you believe all those boxes get checked off by age 22.

So imagine my and Josh’s surprise to discover that the battle of early middle age seems to be how to maintain hope without nurturing false hope. Once you know how much the world can suck—when it’s clear that you’re probably not going to become a rock star with eternally low cholesterol and a devoted model for a spouse and 2.5 adorable, well behaved children who don’t get in the way of your rock star career in any way—how do you still live in it and love it? (And I ask this realizing that I’m still innocent when it comes to the direct effects of war and poverty—the really big stuff.)

The other night my sister was expressing some exhaustion with the dating pool, and I thought about how it’s something different for everyone. I could have given the same jaded speech but substituted “publishing” for “men.” It scared me a little because my sister is not a person I consider bitter or jaded at all. I know she’ll brush herself off in the same way I’ll brush myself off. But can you just do that endlessly?

Being a starving artist or a dreamy-eyed romantic when you’re 22 is charming. When you’re 33, it seems deluded. I’ve seen people my age with these attitudes and they weird me out a little. But who wants to be the chain-smoking hag at the end of the bar raining on everyone’s parade either? Sometimes the only appealing alternative seems to be being fabulously successful in everything you try. But that’s A) not possible and B) would make you kind of out of touch and insufferable in your own way.

So I’m trying to negotiate a fourth territory. I think maybe David Foster Wallace already did it with that one commencement speech, which I should probably reread every week. Of course, it’s hard not to be like, Yeah, but he killed himself, so his answer, which seemed to be the only answer, was not an answer at all for him, was it? I’m against reading too much into the suicide of a person I never met, but I do think a lifelong struggle with depression probably encouraged him to think about the question of how to have faith without innocence more than the average person.

Friday night AK and I saw Robbie Q. Telfer perform at Oxy. I wasn’t familiar with his work, but it gave me lots of hope. It was this fusion of poetry, spoken word and stand-up comedy that took all kinds of twists and turns. A piece would start out hilariously funny and turn dark and poignant without the record ever scratching. Then the end would tie it all together, not so much a neat package as a letter bomb (see his “Douche Bag” piece, and the way it weaves between the literal and the metaphorical like a stunt car on a closed course). Some of the college kids in the cafeteria auditorium finished their pizza and wandered out mid-performance, but Robbie Q. maintained his dignity. He’s only like 28 or 29, I think, so maybe he wasn’t thinking, Ignorant brats. Or maybe he was, a little, and just brushed himself off for now.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

what i read in january

Some months I want to give everything I read a solid B. January was not one of those months. Here are my three fascinations (not counting The False Friend, which I loooved and already told you about) and one hate.

Room by Emma Donoghue: You might think an entire book narrated by a five-year-old would be precious and grating, but Emma Donoghue pulls it off. She's also written a thriller with a simple premise: boy and mother trapped in a room; he's never known anything else, but she wants a realer life for both of them. It's completely addictive, suspenseful, sweet and funny, with lovely fairytale allusions that prove Donoghue hasn't abandoned her Kissing the Witch inspirations. Oh, and Room also manages to muse on the meanings of consciousness, reality and self-hood in a waaaay more interesting form than most of what I read in grad school.

Impossible Motherhood by Irene Vilar: I read this on the heels of A Million Little Pieces, and I found it as opposite as a memoir can be (which, if you've read my review of A Million Little Pieces, you know is a good thing). It's deeply reflective and quietly poetic. It's slightly nonlinear, and I did find myself having to retrace my steps to get the who-what-when at times, but I appreciated Vilar's ability to approach her subject matter from different angles. Her story is brutal on its face--15 abortions in 15 years--and both more brutal and more understandable upon the close examination she gives it. Impossible Motherhood is a story of inflicting other stories on the body, and of slowly finding a way out. I loved the scene where Irene learns to nurture by caring for her dying dog, and I was thankful that the possible motherhood she finally depicts wasn't painted as an easy cure for a lifetime of struggle, as certain celebrity mommy testimonies would have you believe.

Flash by Jim Miller: Reading this novel, about a journalist who becomes obsessed with an old Wobbly named Bobby Flash (Wobblies were IWW workers, who caused a stir in San Diego in the early twentieth century), I got the impression that Jim Miller moves through a city much like I do: seeing the past as a ghostly imprint over the present, falling in love with cultural idiosyncrasies, wondering what my history classes never taught me. There's an interesting tension in Flash between artistic individualism and social-justice collectivism which plays out as journalist Jack bumps up against organizers and activists but never quite joins them. His dreamy loneliness is compounded by his semi-estrangement from his grown son and the gaps in his family history. But as his research reveals, the pursuits of individual and communal happiness aren't mutually exclusive. This book is a must-read for history geeks, labor advocates, Southern Californians, people intrigued by alternative communities, and border dwellers in all senses of the phrase.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey:
Of all the reactions I expected to have to this book, "boredom with frequent dashes of extreme annoyance" wasn't among them. Oprah, you deserve better, and by "better," I don't mean truth. You deserve competent prose, not verbal ticks trying to pass themselves off as literary-ness. Someone needs to introduce Frey to the serial comma. Also, it's bad enough to write a stock sentence. To repeat it over and over again for emphasis is unforgivable. Oprah, you've been through some crazy-ass shit in your life, so you know that a ten-minute conversation with Dr. Phil contains more self-reflection than this memoir-slash-novel.

Despite positively portraying characters who function pretty much as 12-step information pamphlets (except when they pause to be awed by how stubborn and hardcore the asshole protagonist is), Frey ultimately dismisses traditional processes in favor of JUST DECIDING NOT TO DRINK. (Oops, I think I just spoiled the lamest ending ever.) This book oozes ego, stupidity and hubris (or as Frey would say, "stupidity and stupidity and stupidity"). While I'm still trying to parse whether I hate James the fictional character, James the person-who-inherently-becomes-a-character-due-to-the-nature-of-narrative, or Frey the writer, one thing is certain: He owes Oprah and all of us an apology.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

keep austin carby and batty

When we told our former neighbor Alyssa that we were going to Austin, she said, “Oh, you’re going to love it. You’re totally going to move there.” Work Cathy said, “I’ve never been to Austin, but when I hear the name, I just think: awesome. I know it’s going to be awesome.

At the airport on the way home, passing T-shirts that said “Keep Austin Weird,” I asked AK, “Do you think it would be overly controversial to title my blog post ‘Austin: Not That Weird’?”

Don’t get me wrong: Our trip was great, the city was fun, the people were friendly, billboards informed us you could buy a condo for $90,000, and AK’s Austin peeps showed us a good time…but there was also traffic and confusing street signage and long lines everywhere and plenty of Starbuckses and overpriced thrift stores. I couldn’t help but wonder if some of Austin’s stellar reputation came from the rest of the country’s condescendingly low expectations of Texas.

The first night we Tex-Mexed it up at Chuy’s, a local chain with unlimited self-serve chips and salsa that you can eat at a table while you wait for your real table. That alone earns Austin a lot of points in my personal travel book. We met up with Amy, an old friend of AK’s, and her friend Christina, a Wisconsin transplant who’d developed a loud, friendly twang. AK asked about Texas politics and Christina told a joke that involved a California spending a bunch of money to commission a study and a Texas governor taking out his gun and shooting a coyote.

Saturday we hit South Congress, which is kind of the Melrose/Vermont of Austin. There was an antique mall called Uncommon Objects where you could buy cattle bones and nudie photos from the 1890s. There was that store from Whip It and I think a Visa commercial. At St. Vincent de Paul, which has not been in any movies that I know of, I bought three shirts, a funky plastic and metal necklace and some Keds for $22. The shirts were originally from Target and Forever 21, though, so I didn’t exactly feel like I made amazing Austin-specific finds.

In L.A. we have food trucks; in Austin they have food Airstream trailers. It’s much prettier. We ate crepes at one and petted dogs at the dog-rescue trailer next door. The first person I mentioned that sequence of events to questioned what kind of meat, exactly, was in my crepe. But it was tofu—ha!

Another Austin claim to fame is bats: Every sundown during the summer, millions of them swarm up from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. Ever since I read Weetzie Bat, I’ve been a fan of actual bats (even though there weren’t any in that book). I have a soft spot for maligned animals (shout-out to possums, pigeons and rats!), and was super excited, but alas, it wasn’t bat season. They’re apparently all kicking it in Mexico right now.

But I did get to taste a batini, the signature cocktail at the Driskill Hotel, where AK and I lounged the afternoon away.

After an evening of carb-loading and an early bedtime, we woke up at 5 a.m. so AK and Jody could run and I could drive them to their run. It was a much less fun form of solidarity than the carb-loading, especially because I got hopelessly lost on the dark, rainy drive back. A bunch of roads were closed for the race, a whole freeway connector was closed for construction and at one point it seemed clear that I was going to end up driving to San Antonio. There but for the grace of an Exxon employee who gave much clearer directions than your average Austin street sign.

AK and Jody both came across the finish line looking cool and collected, like they’d gone for a light jog. I’d been worried about Jody because he wasn’t feeling well and had had a bunch of cookies for breakfast, which somehow didn’t seem as strategic as spaghetti the night before. But he’s a pro.

The run was packed and AK got tangled with another runner around mile three; the chick was uninjured but also unforgiving, and AK spent a lot of the race feeling guilty and afraid to pass anyone. So her time wasn’t what it could have been, and the annoying thing about race times is that no one is really interested in hearing what yours could have been. Even though her time still rocked (2:17 y’all!), I was frustrated on her behalf. I also have a soft spot for unsung hard workers.

After dropping Christine and Jody off at the airport, we spent our final night in town with AK’s middle school friend Joy and her husband Odie (I’m not sure he spells it like Garfield’s BFF, but I’m going to pretend he does). Odie has worked in restaurants for years, and like many restaurant industry people, he and Joy know how to party, how to eat and drink their way around town. I mean, sometimes I think I literally don’t know how to party.

They took us to this little strip of Rainey Street that had recently been rezoned for restaurants and bars, and it was the first place in Austin where it really hit me that I was somewhere different. All the restaurants and bars were either in old converted cottages or trailers or stylish tin shacks. There were lots of white lights strung up and one giant rattlesnake made out of bicycles that looked ready to slither off to Burning Man.

The whole thing glimmered and made me think of the bayou, even though I’ve never been to the bayou. There was also something a little third-world about it, and I got to thinking about how in a lot of countries there are just certain things no one but the upper upper classes even tries because they’re so prohibitively expensive. I think that opening a restaurant with a foundation and a door in the U.S. is becoming one of them. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as evidenced by Rainey Street.

Since most of our trip so far had consisted of eating and driving (at least for those of us who didn’t run), it was refreshing to spend Monday morning in a park being a passenger. We were among the few riders of the Zilker Park Zephyr who were taller than four feet, but it was a nice way to see a river and ducks and dogs and a street musician named Woody Wood who sidled up to us like he might rob the train.

Our last stop was Mexic-Arte, which had a beautiful exhibit of the bright colored tiles made in San Antonio in the first half of the 20th century (plus a somewhat uninspired installation about the women of Juarez. Is it blasphemous to say I’ve seen better women-of-Juarez art?)

Arriving home, I was catapulted into February. January felt like something of a 2010 hangover, so I was happy to be done with it, but man, February is going to be busy and a little stressful. Austin, even if you’re not so weird, I’m going to miss you.